Danger in the Straits: A Fuse Lit?

Jonathan Clarke, a former member of the British diplomatic service, is with the Cato Institute in Washington. E-mail:

Taiwan’s decision Saturday to abandon the fiction that there is only “one China” could not have come at a worse time. With U.S. relations with China at low ebb, the resurrection of the Taiwan issue is exactly what is not needed, especially as the question could become enmeshed in partisan U.S. presidential politics. Given that the U.S. is committed by treaty to defend Taiwan against any Chinese military intervention, the fuse on an Asian shooting war may already have been lit.

The administration has reacted to the Taiwanese claim with routine orthodoxy, stating that the U.S. recognizes only “one China.” But the time may be opportune to deploy some dynamic “preventive diplomacy.” This much-invoked but rarely used instrument of international crisis management is designed to justify a bold but risky intervention today to head off something much worse tomorrow.

The theory of preventive diplomacy has an immaculate pedigree. In 1940, Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda chief, confided to a journalist that had the German authorities moved against the Nazis in 1925, “That would have been that, the end.”

In these days of an increasingly militarized foreign policy, preventive diplomacy is normally interpreted as a “whiff of grapeshot.” This was the U.S. approach to Kosovo. In the case of China, however, military intimidation is clearly not appropriate. So brains will have to substitute for muscle.


The crux of America’s problem with China over Taiwan is that relations are built on a verbal fantasy. For China, the problem has been long settled in the form of American rejection of Taiwanese independence, first by the 1972 Shanghai communique approved by President Nixon and reaffirmed by Presidents Carter and Reagan. After initial hesitation, the Clinton administration has gone even farther in China’s direction by endorsing the “three noes” policy--no to independence, no to two Chinas, no to Taiwanese membership of state-based international organizations. On the surface, game, set and match to China.

Reality, however, has been moving in the other direction. When tough choices present themselves, Taiwan gets the call. Examples are the Clinton administration’s 1995 acquiescence in Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui’s visit to Cornell University or its 1996 dispatch of the aircraft carrier Independence through the Taiwan Strait. In each case, overwhelming pro-Taiwan opinion in Congress would have forced the administration’s hand had it resisted. The 20th anniversary in April of the Taiwan Relations Act produced a further outpouring of congressional support for Taiwan. The trend of events is that, if forced to choose between China and Taiwan, this and future U.S. administrations will choose democratic Taiwan over communist China.

China’s leadership does not understand this moral dimension of American politics. Its main eyes and ears on America come from the U.S. business community and its lobbying organizations. This has delivered so many victories to China, notably on “most favored nation” trading status and downgrading the U.S. focus on human rights, and that China’s leaders believe that they can override American principle. In the case of Taiwan, this could be a fatal delusion. Taiwan has come far from the days of 30 years ago when its then president, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, could not drive down Taipei’s main street unless, to avoid potential snipers, all windows along the route were closed. Today, Taiwan’s leaders enjoy genuine democratic legitimacy, far more indeed than any in China. Taiwan reflects American moral and political values, and thus can count on U.S. protection--up to and including war.

This is where preventive diplomacy can find a role. Rather than perpetuating the “three noes” status quo as the administration has done, the U.S. might announce a change of emphasis by stating that, under the right circumstances and with due regard to international law, the U.S. would “not oppose” Taiwan’s independence. While stopping well short of outright support for Taiwan’s independence, this announcement would inject clarity into the present dangerously ambiguous game of pretense being played by Washington and Beijing.

Of course, the volume of Beijing’s squawks would rise mightily. The U.S. business community could be called upon to render a really useful service by assuaging China’s outrage by arguing that this was in the long-term interest of regional stability and prosperity. But there is little doubt that in the short run, U.S.-China relations would nose dive. Given that at present China’s military strike capability is negligible, the U.S. can live with a temporary further deterioration in relations. The relative weakness of present-day China affords precisely the most propitious circumstances under which the U.S. can best manage an awkward transition of this nature. This is what preventive diplomacy is all about.